Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and that chilling scene…

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Leon Shamroy’s stunning, ethereal Oscar-winning cinematography in Leave Her to Heaven (dir. John M. Stahl, 1945) is the perfect backdrop for one of the most despicable things any character ever did in a movie. But before that, here’s what we’re dealing with: Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meet on a train and soon become attracted to each other. As luck would have it, they’re heading to the same destination, a beautiful ranch in New Mexico. Unsurprisingly, after a few mishaps that include Ellen breaking off her engagement to Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), she and Richard get married. But things start to take a turn for the worse, as Ellen’s possessiveness and jealousy start to show and her obsession with Richard turns deadly…

The film’s crowning moment, and one of the greatest moments in film history, comes about an hour into it and represents a clear, undeniable shift in the film’s tone and in the character of Ellen: on a beautiful, sunny day, Richard’s younger, disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) and Ellen are on a boat in the lake. She’s been helping him with his swimming and he’s eager to show his brother how much he’s improved, so he decides to go for one last swim, so he can ‘show Dick tomorrow!’. He goes in and swims for a while, with Ellen right behind him on the boat, almost like a predator… After a few seconds, he gets a stomach cramp and starts to drown. He calls out for Ellen… But Ellen doesn’t come. She sits motionless on the boat, watching him drown, her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses, knowing that, with him gone, Richard will be all hers…

It’s one of the most horrifying scenes in any movie, particularly because of how unusual it is. Unlike its 1940s noir counterparts, Leave Her to Heaven is set against the backdrop of a breath-takingly beautiful place, making the most of its glorious Technicolor. So it stands to reason that its most dramatic moment should take place on that lake, surrounded by trees, not too far from their lodge, on a sun-soaked day. That’s all it needs, because Ellen is dark enough as it is. And that in itself is probably the biggest argument for Leave Her to Heaven‘s inclusion in the noir canon: that comfort, that security, that idyllic scenario, cruelly taken away from us by something extremely dark lurking underneath. From the moment she realizes what she could do, to the moment Danny drowns, her evilness is evident: her face barely hiding her contempt for Danny as she decides what she’s going to do; her lips pursed, and her eyes fixated on him as she makes sure he’s gone for good… And like that, silence. Nothing, apart from the ripples of the water as it becomes still again.

This was Gene Tierney’s only Oscar nomination, and while her performance had been good enough up until this point, I am convinced this was the scene that sealed the deal. It’s an extraordinary acting moment, one that doesn’t require a whole lot of dialogue, other than a few stone-cold responses as Danny looks back every once in a while, and one that only needs to be conveyed on her face. That’s it. There’s no music, no big argument, no nothing. Just Gene Tierney. Because that’s all we need.

12 thoughts on “Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and that chilling scene…

  1. Mike Noonan

    Haven’t seen this film yet so I skipped over parts of it of it so I can be surprised. Another film I will be ordering from my library. Always liked Gene Tierney.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s one of my favorite Noirs. I’d say this is one of the most beautifully photographed movies of the 40s. Literally not a single frame and detail was left to chance or is out-of-kilter. DOP was Leon Shamroy who was lucky in that he never really had to waste his time or talent on bottom-of-the-barrel Poverty Row productions.

    That scene you describe is a standout. People who say Tierney couldn’t act should watch this movie. When she yanks off her eyeglasses and we see the startling blue of her eyes, it’s truly chilling.

    Liked by 1 person

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